May 14, 1998

Inter-American Foundation Strays into an Intellectual Property Minefield

A public row over the notorious US patent on the medicinal plant ayahuasca has broken out between COICA, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples' Organizations of the Amazon Basin, and the US government's Inter-American Foundation (IAF). In correspondence made public on the internet by COICA on March 4th, IAF has demanded COICA disavow a 1996 resolution approved by Amazonian indigenous peoples' organizations from 9 countries, that condemns the US plant patent (#PP5751) held by the International Plant Medicine Corporation (IPMC). IAF has further threatened to withdraw funding from groups that don't heed its command.

IPMC is a small California concern that says it is researching and intends to market ayahuasca-based medicines. IPMC obtained the plant directly from an indigenous person's garden in the Ecuadorean Amazon. US plant patent law did not require IPMC to do any breeding or improvement of the plant before giving the company an exclusive monopoly on a vine that Amazonian indigenous peoples consider sacred (see RAFI Communique Nov/Dec 1995).

Observers from across the Americas have been stunned by IAF's position. Despite being a US government institution, IAF's largely ex-Peace Corps staff has historically steered away from contentious issues like patenting of life and indigenous knowledge. Instead IAF has maintained its focus on highly-respected grassroots development work with numerous Latin American civil society groups of urban and rural poor. The foundation has been especially lauded for its role working with South American indigenous peoples' organizations.

Whether by accident or design, IAF has allied itself with the most unpopular and most rabidly pro-monopoly elements of the US government's Departments of Commerce and State. CSOs from across the Americas may now have to deal with IAF demanding allegiance to US foreign policy from its grant recipients. Indigenous peoples' groups and CSOs alike are wondering if IAF is now condoning biopiracy. We thought that we'd gotten beyond the time of... paternalism, protectionism, and colonial practices; but it looks as if we've sinned by optimism." says COICA.

Baffled CSOs are trying to understand why IAF - with no expertise or mandate on IPR issues - has chosen to involve itself. NGOs in Washington theorize that IAF's quarrelsome new posture lacks internal endorsement and is related to personal political agendas brought to the foundation in recent high-level staff changes.

The row threatens to bring the Foundation under considerable fire from a diverse group of environmental NGOs and peoples' organizations, first at May's Fourth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Bratislava, Slovakia, which will focus on urgent task of preserving indigenous knowledge. In Bratislava, CSOs and indigenous peoples' organizations plan to bring IAF's bullying to the attention of the 168 governments who have signed the CBD and committed themsleves to protecting indigenous knowledge and resources. Shortly thereafter indigenous groups from throughout the world will likely discuss the problem at the annual meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. "Absolutely nuts," says RAFI's Edward Hammond, "has IAF inherited a masochism gene? Why is the Foundation running cover for corporate interests?"

Matters have not been made easier by confusing and inaccurate statements by IAF. COICA has pointed out that IAF has inaccurately characterized COICA's position in correspondence. In the recently released correspondence IAF states that it "does not represent the private interests of Mr. Miller" (Miller is the IPMC head and the ayahuasca's "inventor"). Yet in the same letter, the Foundation insists that "COICA retract this declaration through a letter addressed to the President of the Inter-American Foundation."

IAF's position makes it easy to draw the conclusion that the Foundation is pursuing an undisclosed agenda with respect to the patent. Also causing confusion is IAF's reference to ayahuasca "development" rights granted in the US. According to RAFI's Hope Shand "Either IAF doesn't understand the US Plant Patent Act - which confers no such rights - or it has inside knowledge of new unpublished patent claims."

So far, IAF has made no explanation. The Foundation interprets COICA's anti-patent resolution, which says in part that it "is not responsible for the physical safety of Mr. Miller", as being a threat to do harm to a US citizen. "But IAF's demands don't make much sense," says RAFI's Edward Hammond. "rather than seeking clarification from COICA on the pertinent question, IAF is imperiously insisting on complete abandonment." Hammond continues, "If the question is really one of interpretation, IAF should simply ask COICA to clarify that it intends Miller no physical harm. COICA would undoubtedly be able to assure IAF it won't hurt Miller. Instead, IAF is leaving the impression that it's trying to force Third World indigenous peoples' compliance with US IPR policy in a disgraceful power play. So long as the Foundation acts like this, it will be interpreted by CSOs as a signal that the Foundation has adopted the agenda of the US' patent-pushers."

The ayahuasca patent, issued back in 1986, was discovered by RAFI and first came to international attention in a story in RAFI Communique published in December, 1995. The patent has become an international rallying point in opposition to US IPR policy, and COICA's campaign against it has drawn support from environmental NGOs and POs from across the world. In a 1997 speech at the UN General Assembly, indigenous people called for the patent's revocation. Support for COICA's campaign has come from groups like international farmers' organization Via Campesina, which has joined COICA in fighting biopiracy at UN fora, Brazil's Instituto Socioambiental, which has publicized the patent in that country and called for reform of IPR laws related to plant varieties, the Indigenous Peoples' Biodiversity Network, a global group fighting biopiracy, and numerous other influential CSOs.

Attention drawn to the patent by Ecuadorean groups including the indigenous federation CONFENIAE and NGO AcciÛn Ecologica was crucial in Ecuador's refusal to ratify a bilateral IPR agreement with the US government in 1996. Beaten once; but not ashamed, the US is currently again pressuring the Ecuadorean Congress to ratify the agreement. Meanwhile, in Washington, efforts to get the US Senate to ratify the UN Convention on Biological Diversity are completely stalled."

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